"If you were to ask me to describe myself, the very first word that comes to mind is refugee because that’s the most definitive, formative experience of my life."
by Terrence Chappell
Jewish refugee. Homeless. Second-class citizen. All are unexpected, chilling identifiers that Equality Illinois' [EQIL] CEO Bernard Cherkasov has lived, fought, and even fled through and from in his life. However, the struggles and obstacles that came with such labels is in fact what has shaped Cherkasov's ideology, his tenacity, and his passion. With an impressive pedigree that includes a Master's degree from Harvard University, career experience that includes clerking for the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Jerusalem as well as acting as board president for AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, and a host of awards and honors; undeniably, Cherkasov's credentials makes him an ardent leader in the LGBT political movement. Even more so it's Cherkasov's background, humble approach, his relatability, and overall genuine nature that kept and keeps him as an integral player in the LGBT political agenda – a friend.
Cherkasov takes readers behind his title as CEO of EQIL and resume of experience to a time when he was just a teenage boy growing up in an anti-Semitic country. Born in Azerbaijan, Cherkasov remembers the growing violence against Armenian and Jewish minorities during the late 1980s. So intense was the hatred and violence for Armenian and Jewish minorities that Cherkasov and his family had to go into hiding and eventually flee from their country. After traveling from one country to the next, Cherkasov and his family came to America as Jewish refugees to start a new life. It was in his new life in America that Cherkasov observed and learned of discrimination of a different kind, that against LGBT members.
Like many refugees who travel to America, Cherkasov came here with hopes of opportunity and access – the American dream. Cherkasov did find and achieve the American dream, but what he also found was discrimination against his fellow LGBT community members. It was then that Cherkasov knew he had another fight to fight.
He dedicated his studies and career to public policy, which led him to the nonprofit sector and eventually as head of the nationally renowned nonprofit organization Equality Illinois.
Already in his fourth year, Cherkasov has jumped over hurdles of turbulent economic times, policy setbacks, and at times low community morale to sustain Equality Illinois as a definitive voice of the people. As same-sex marriage becomes a legal reality, Cherkasov opens up about the bill, how the fight doesn't stop with its passage into law, his marriage, and above all how he didn't allow the world to change him; he's out to change the world.
TC: (Terrence Chappell) How did you get your start in public policy?
BC: (Bernard Cherkasov) I'm a lawyer by trade. I started my career by working in public policy for the Jewish community. I was working in Washington. I was working on transforming the Jewish community's public policy goals into an activist agenda on college campuses around the United States and Canada. That was an amazing experience.
TC: Could you expand on that agenda?
BC: The agenda was very important and diverse. It included issues not only related back to the Jewish community but also concerns of the larger, progressive movement of LGBT issues. That's how I really got started by working for LGBT equality. It was by working in the Jewish community.
TC: So, you transitioned into LGBT politics through the Jewish community. What attracted you to LGBT politics?
BC: There's something about my experience of being a Jewish refugee and feeling hopeless, powerless, and always having to fight to have a foot in society. So, when I finally came to America where there's this promise of equal opportunity for everyone, yet it seemed as though these opportunities were not available to members of my LGBT community, it seemed so un-American. It was not like the America I knew and love. I just had to get involved in the LGBT movement.
TC: How was it growing up Jewish during that time and in your country?
BC: One of my strongest memories of my childhood was when I was in summer camp and hanging over my bed there was a sign that read Bernard, comma, a Jew; even my medical records read Bernard, comma, a Jew.
TC: You mentioned that when you came to America, you were a Jewish refugee. What was the triggering event that caused you and your family to flee your county?
BC: The place where I was born was always prevalent with anti-Semitism. In the late 1980s there was a rise in xenophobia and violent campaigns to get rid of the Armenian and Jewish minorities. I remember the Marshall law where you couldn't leave your home after a certain hour. I remember for two months in December of 88 and January of 89, we actually hid in my grandmother's village because it got so violent in the city my family and I lived. It was dangerous to be outside on the streets; violence was prevalent everywhere. After we spent two months in hiding it became very clear to my parents that if they wanted safety for their family, particularly their kids, then they need to think about fleeing.
TC: How does this influence you now?
BC: It definitely influenced my outlook on life. First off, it's a very formative experience of my life. The idea of fleeing your home, then traveling for months without a place to call home, not knowing where you'll end up, and then arriving to a country whose language you don't speak and whose culture you don't know. But also the idea of public service because I felt like this country gave us a home, this country gave us a refuge. America gave us all the opportunities that we could've ever hoped for because my native country refused to give us those same opportunities. It's my responsibility now to give back.
TC: Take us back to that time when you and your family fled your country.
BC: When we fled as a family we didn't know where we would end up. We traveled to Russia, Austria, and Italy. It took us months before we received refugee status in the United States. The reason why my parents wanted to come to America is because this is the land of the American dream; this is the land of equal opportunity for everyone. And that is always my idea of America.
TC: And that's what further sparked your interest in LGBT politics and legislation. How did you go from coming to America, being upset over the discrimination against the LGBT community and then actually funneling all of that emotion and personal experience into a career?
BC: I got involved with public policy in Washington, and I loved the work that I was doing there. I came to understand that public policy is about journey. You don't work for a change and the next day you see that change happen. However, being apart of that journey, seeing it through, making a clear plan, and mobilizing others to join the movement was really important to me. That's LGBT equality.
TC: When did you come out?
BC: I came out when I was 17. Nowadays you hear people coming out when they are 15 or 14. Certainly, by the time I came out I didn't feel like I was coming out early. It felt like I had a delayed process.
TC: Who was the first person you came out to?
BC: I was already in college at the time, so I came out to my college friends first.
TC: Then family?
BC: I have a very close family. I called my parents and told them I have to tell you something, so come visit. My parents never missed an opportunity to come visit me in college. I actually think they came the next day. They came. I came out to them and that was that. It was a very quick process.
TC: How did your parents respond to you coming out?
BC: We're Jewish refugees from a Muslim country. My parents grew up in a very conservative, traditional society. But the very first thing they said to me after I came out is that we love you. It did take them some time to figure some things out. It wasn't a long process for them. But we never lost our closeness and now we're closer than ever before.
TC: You were a young, newly out gay man in America. Did you do any partying, dating, and exploring your new life in America?
BC: Here's something funny about me. Before I came out, I spent all my time with my close friends playing board games and eating cheesecakes. There was a point in my life where I did that so often I gained 275 pounds.
TC: So your focus wasn't really on your personal life?
BC: When I first came out, I wasn't really focused on dating. I was much more focused on political involvement and that's where all my free time went. I was consumed by my studies and by my work.
TC: And that career focus brought you to Chicago.
BC: I'm very close to my family. My mom, my dad, my brother, and our extended family; we're all still very close to this day. So, it was very important to me after I finished my master's program that I come back to the Midwest. When I did my undergrad in Ann Arbor, I visited Chicago virtually every other month. So, when I finished all my studies and I was looking for work, I decided that I was going to move to Chicago and brought my life here.
TC: What was your first job in Chicago?
BC: I worked for a firm called McGuire Woods, which is now one of the leading law firms for LGBT equality; they are a sponsor of Equality Illinois as well. My first year I started working with people who became my mentors like Mike McRaith, who is now the federal insurance commissioner and Ann Hilton Fisher who is the executive director of the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago. I joined the board of the AIDS Legal Council, and I started getting more involved in the community. I stepped down as the president of the board of directors for ALCC when I joined Equality Illinois.
TC: How did you navigate roles from board president of ALCC to leading Equality Illinois as the nonprofit organization's CEO?
BC: What gave me a really good running start at Equality Illinois was my legal background. It gave me a sense of the legal perspective and insight into the agenda they [EQIL] were trying to accomplish, which is a very policy focused agenda. On the other hand, being a chair for AIDS Legal Council gave me the perspective of a nonprofit organization and how to manage one. Ann Hilton Fisher in the decade that she has been with ALCC has done an amazing job transforming AIDS Legal Council into a stable, growing, professional and incredible organization. Watching her work as chair of the board gave me insight as to how a great nonprofit organization should run. I brought those two things with me when I joined Equality Illinois.
TC: What were some initial challenges when you first joined Equality Illinois?
BC: When I joined we had just had a setback in terms of civil unions and the bill's passing. There was a lot of hope in the LGBT community that the civil union's bill would pass in the general session in 2009. But because of some very public setbacks, the bill didn't pass. We were also dealing with a very difficult economic climate. The push for that agenda is very expensive. Nonprofits from around the country were suffering from a decrease in donations and corporate support.
TC: But you guys soldiered through those obstacles.
BC: We had to face all those challenges at the same. But we faced them and we're now doubled the size we were in 2009. We're double our budget. We have two satellite offices that we didn't have before. We have more members, more corporate partners, and more coalition partners than we we've ever had before.
TC: What was Bernard's vision of Equality Illinois?
BC: It was for us to really be the voice of the community in Springfield. And a voice that just doesn't focus on one agenda item but focuses on the whole array of issues that are important to LGBT people. It's very easy to only focus on the big headline grabbers, which is marriage equality. But there are so many other issues that are urgent that we must address every single day.
TC: What are some of those issues?
BC: Transgender issues. We have this great human rights act, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace but many companies don't know how to translate that of habitual discrimination into being great working employers where transgender employees feel welcomed, included, and not discriminated against. So setting up an agenda to work with employers to become great employers was something important for us.
TC: So, would you say Equality Illinois doesn't just act as a watchdog for only LGBT members?
BC: We have to fight for a society that is fair and inclusive to everyone. So, we also fight racism, we fight religious discrimination, and we fight xenophobia. We have to be a society where everyone is equal.
TC: Did you personally face any discrimination as a Jewish man when you came to America?
BC: When my family first came to America, we were really welcomed with opened arms everywhere. I remember us being refugees, so we didn't have anything. I remember strangers giving us chairs, couches, and beds. Our only furniture here our first week were two chairs. So, we put them together and used them as a table where my family and I ate meals.
TC: Earlier you mentioned that you just stayed in and didn't really focus much on your dating life. Well it wasn't always board games and cheesecakes. You've been married for about ten years now, right?
BC: Yes. We're approaching our 10th anniversary in a few months. Up until I met Danny [husband], I was always a student. So, I went on a few dates but my number one priority and preoccupation were my studies.
TC: How did you balance your new relationship with your career?
BC: We dated long distance for the first year. After I finished law school, I moved to Jerusalem to clerk for the chief justice of the Supreme Court. So, we dated long distance during that time as well. After that, I moved to Chicago, he moved with me, and we've been together ever since.
TC: You and your husband adopted a daughter together as well.
BC: Yes, we have a daughter. She is three-years-old. Her name is Miriam. We adopted her when she was one-years-old. So, her second anniversary of her homecoming is coming up in a few weeks.
TC: Congratulation. How is it being a parent?
BC: I have to tell you. It has been the most amazing, grounding, and fulfilling experience I can ever imagine.
TC: In regards to the same-sex marriage bill, how is the climate in Springfield?
BC: It's actually amazing. For the first time I really feel like the lawmakers listened to the majority in Illinois who support the freedom to marry. There's this sense now that the lawmakers are catching up with popular support.
TC: And how serendipitous that Valentine's Day marks the day of the Senate vote for the bill.
BC: I think it's going to be a great gift for gay and lesbian couples on Valentine's Day in Illinois. At least the Senate will recognize their freedom to marry.
TC: How will the passage of the same-sex marriage bill bring the LGBT community further than the legalization of civil unions?
BC: The day that the civil unions bill was signed into law, Equality Illinois launched a civil union tracker. Over the course of one year, we tracked the experiences of over 1,200 participants. Over that same time, about 5,000 couples got their civil union licenses in Illinois, so we had a pretty good representative sample.
We followed their entire experiences as they went about filing their taxes, getting hospital visitation, making emergency medical decisions, going to the morgue, or going to the pharmacy. We asked them did having a civil union upgrade you to the full equality that lawmakers had intended? What we learned from those experiences that in every single case where civil unions was suppose to provide full equality that it had failed. We heard the same response from everyone. If that state wanted to recognize you as a married couple, they would have called you married.
It became even clearer than that creating a separate institution and calling and hoping that it would provide equality was not going to work.
TC: How do you plan to celebrate once the bill is passed?
BC: I think I'm going to take one day off just as a break because this has been a very long campaign. (Laughs) But the very next day we will have to go into work and defend the newly passed bill.
TC: So, the fight doesn't just end with the bill's passage into law?
BC: No. In every single state where the same-sex marriage bill has been passed, there have been reforms to repeal the marriage bill, to dilute it, to weaken it. Our fight for equality doesn't end with a victory for marriage.
TC: What can we do on the community, ground level to help?
BC: Until the moment that the marriage bill passes in the Illinois General Assembly, people who support marriage equality must contact their lawmakers and urge them to support it. And when you're done calling your lawmakers you must contact everyone you know around the state and urge them to do the same.
TC: This Saturday, Feb. 9, is the big night for Equality Illinois with the Equality Illinois 2013 Justice For All Gala. Each year, the gala seems to top the past one. What can guests expect this year?
BC: This may be the largest gala we've had in recent memory. It grows every year. We've sold out in two of the categories maybe a month ago. We only have standing tickets left and even then it was because we added new tables. People are just really excited and feel like the movement for freedom to marry is really coming ahead.
Art Smith and his husband Jesus Salgueiro are the co-chairs. They have been incredible. They are so incredibly generous with their time and their resources. Just having them as chairs raised the visibility and profile of the event. The menu is inspired by their Southern cuisine. Chef Art has been doing a circuit of TV appearances promoting some of his favorite dishes that have inspired the menu for the gala.
TC: What are you excited about?
BC: I'm excited for the event itself. It will be great to see the parade of elected officials from the governor on down. There will be members of Congress in attendance. There will be constitutional officers of our state. There will be members of legislators from both parties. To see them all there supporting full equality for LGBT people is so amazing. It just really gives you a chance to pause and think about how far we've come as a community.
TC: Have you thought about how far you've come personally from being a Jewish refugee to the CEO of a nationally renowned nonprofit organization – Equality Illinois?
BC: If you were to ask me to describe myself, the very first word that comes to mind is refugee because that's the most definitive, formative experience of my life. To think about this great movement and amazing organization that I get to be apart of is still very striking every day to me. I'm still in awe and very humbled that I have this responsibility.
TC: What do you want your legacy to be?
BC: I don't think I'm quite done yet, so it's too early. (Smiles)